Historic lake battle marks 200th anniversary

The footsteps and tapping of wandering ghosts, treasures and tragedies of shipwrecks, and a welcome beam of light projected out to mariners at a distance calculated by the trigonometry of similar triangles are some of the anecdotes, stories and facts shared at the top of the lighthouse tower during a tour at the Dunkirk Historical Lighthouse and Veterans Park Museum.

During the Prohibition Era, some people actually drove across a frozen Lake Erie to Canada to get alcohol. An interesting fact is the Great Lakes comprise 20 percent of the world’s supply of fresh surface water. Another interesting story is about our own “Widow Cole” who warned the local militia early in the War of 1812 of the British ship near her home that was in pursuit of an American merchant salt vessel. What other stories can be told from the tower?

No matter the weather or season, the view from the tower is always beautiful. It’s easy to imagine past history or enjoy the present whether the day is crystal clear with blue skies and water or gray and blustery with rough waves.

September is a good month to tour the lighthouse, to look out over the water and to visualize an important event that helped shape our nation’s history.

This Tuesday marks the 200th anniversary of the famous “Battle of Lake Erie,”which occurred during the War of 1812. It proved the United States could stand up to the might of Great Britain’s navy. The war solidified the independence initially won during the Revolutionary War just 30 years prior.

At the top of the tower looking out at the expanse of Lake Erie’s water, a person can imagine British armed ships sailing back and forth, ruling the lake from across the border in Canada.

At the time, the United States Navy had very few ships and Great Britain was blockading our ports along the Atlantic coastline. Like a chess game on the water, moves were made for what was ultimately a decisive victory for the United States under the command of Oliver Hazard Perry on the western end of Lake Erie off the shores of Ohio.

On Sept. 10, 1813, Perry’s fleet of nine vessels set sail against six British ships that were sighted on Lake Erie near Put-in-Bay, Ohio. The National Park Service (at nps.gov) describes in great detail the scenario of “Perry’s Victory” and “The Battle of Lake Erie.”

Sails and prevailing winds all played a role, in addition to the military strategy of how to line up ships and the calculation of their gun number and power.

Perry’s ship, the USS Lawrence, came under heavy fire and was soon disabled with a 24-pounder ball “punching through the bulwarks and flying splinters killing and wounding American sailors.”

As described in my prior column of June 23, “Don’t give up the ship local historical connections from the War of 1812,” Perry rowed under fire to another American ship, the USS Niagara.

There he took charge and the Americans were able to destroy two enemy ships and force the British to surrender their naval squadron. Perry was called the “Hero of Lake Erie.” This victory showed that we could protect ourselves and have commerce on the Great Lakes, and that Canada was vulnerable. It also led to other important victories of the war, and as stated by nps.gov, it insured that the states of Ohio and Michigan would remain territories of the United States.

It is from this naval victory that the phrase “Don’t Give up the Ship” was made famous. A naval peer of Perry, Captain James Lawrence, had been mortally wounded in a battle on the USS Chesapeake off the Atlantic coast earlier in the war. Lawrence reportedly gave this command to his men. Oliver Hazard Perry soon used this phrase on his personal battle flag to honor his deceased friend, and it was flying the day of Sept. 10, 1813.

Another historic phrase, “We have met the enemy and they are ours” is traceable to this same battle. After the battle Perry wrote to General William Harrison and said, “We have met the enemy and they are ours; two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop.”

Exciting bicentennial events have been occurring in Ohio including reenactments, tall ships, and various tours.

Nearby Erie, Pa. has also been commemorating the event with “Tall Ships Erie 2013” through Monday in honor of its history. Perry’s fleet, including the USS Lawrence and the USS Niagara, was built in Erie and Presque Isle.

Last June, Mrs. Wells’ fourth grade class at Fredonia Elementary studied this event in depth, including using resources from the Jefferson Educational Society in Erie, Pa. The class was then invited to some of the festivities including a live performance called “The Spirit of Erie.”

People can take trips all around the country and world, but there are also plenty of special activities to be enjoyed right in our own area.

Story time from the lighthouse tower is both entertaining and informative in a setting like no other. Speaking of the War of 1812 and the paranormal, who is that British lieutenant that seems to often let his presence be known in the upstairs room dedicated to the Marines?

The museum is open daily through October from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Call 366-5050 or visit their website www.dunkirklighthouse.com for more information about both regular and ghost tours. Make it a good week and remember to share your own stories.